Emotional + Disordered Eating: The Path To Healing My Relationship with Food
I believe our relationship to food is one of the most overlooked and undervalued personal relationships. It’s almost insidious because it’s one of our basic needs for survival. We interact with it every day, several times a day.
Our relationship to food is a reflection of our relationship to ourselves. When we become mindful and more aware of our actions and behaviors around food, we may be surprised by the deeper meaning and significance that our food choices and eating patterns hold.
I’ve seen an interesting trend in recent consultation calls and/or intakes for private retreats. When I ask women, “what is your relationship to food?” I get responses like:
- “Food loves me and I love food.”
- “I rely on food when I’m feeling stressed.”
- “I want to have better control over my relationship with food.”
- "I'm desperate to learn how to stop emotionally eating."
A part of me can’t help but get a little excited when I see these types of responses because emotional eating, disordered eating, disordered exercise, body image, etc. is one of my favorite areas to focus on with clients. And this stems from my own rollercoaster relationship with food.
When I look back, I can remember starting to use food as a way to self-soothe when I was around 11 years old (although it could have been younger). Through out middle school and high school, I would come home from school, sneak snacks out of the pantry, and hide in my room eating as much as I could. It was a ritual.
This behavior amplified in college when I had my own financial resources, car, and was responsible for my own grocery shopping. I had more access, privacy, and freedom to eat what I wanted, whenever I wanted. Despite this sense of freedom, something about eating an entire pint of ice cream, alone, in my college dorm room or eating a bag of fast food in my car in the parking lot, was…exhilarating and satisfying. The secrecy was a little bit of a high. It felt forbidden, yet comforting.
I would eat way, way past my fullness. Until I was completely stuffed and even sick. I would often do it privately—alone in my bedroom or car. And I didn’t have any thought as to why I was doing this other than it felt good, tasted good, and I “deserved” it. It helped me feel relieved. I felt comforted.
It also felt completely uncontrollable. Even when a part of me really wanted to resist, I just couldn’t help it.
It wasn’t until I had gained a little over 50 pounds during the end of college and then lost the weight, that I realized something about my relationship to food was off.
After a significant weight loss, it’s easy for one to become really obsessive and fearful of gaining back the weight you lost. I would swing between old behaviors of binge eating and then obsessively exercising and restricting out of guilt and shame for my behaviors. I would weigh myself every day, several times a day, to monitor my weight. I became OBSESSED.
One day, through google searching, I stumbled upon the author Geneen Roth and my mind was blown. Geenen has written many amazing books on women and their relationships to food (specifically binge eating and emotional eating). When I read her book, it felt like I was reading my own story. I didn’t think other women felt and did the same things that I did when it came to eating and bingeing. I truly thought this issue was unique to me. It had been so secretive for so long, that I assumed I was alone in this.
This came with relief and grief. Relief that I wasn’t alone and grief in that pain and a lack of self-love was the result of my unhealthy relationship to food.
After almost 20 something years, I finally had some understanding with my behaviors around food. This didn’t mean it was easy to change them but I finally understood the root of the issue.
I would use food to cope with loneliness, fear of intimacy, boredom, to numb trauma, and intense emotion. Food was a way for me to feel loved and nurtured. My brain had learned at a very young age when I binge or emotionally eat, I will receive a sensation of feeling better and/or pleasure (emotionally). Even if it was a false sense of emotional fulfillment.
The core belief that was driving this behavior was: eating food to numb my feelings was safer than actually expressing them.
Just this small shift in perspective and consciousness, changed my relationship to food drastically. It was like the huge secret was revealed. Because I now knew that the pint of ice cream wasn’t really love or comfort. And it could never truly replace either of those.
I had to learn the difference between emotional hunger and actual physical hunger.
I knew when I had that craving to binge, I had the option to pretend like I was going to receive what I emotionally needed from food and get a false sense of relief (and as a result feel worse, mentally and physically) or I could just feel my feelings.
Which at first really wasn’t easy because it meant feeling years and years of repressed emotion. Which can be really intense and even scary.
But there is other loving, healthier ways to give myself what I truly need or emote my feelings. When I felt a craving come on, I would read, journal, make more art, call a friend, or go out for a walk. Sometimes I would cave into my urge. Sometimes I would have an internal conversation with myself for 30 minutes until I talked myself off the ledge of eating an entire bag of cookies.
And on the flip side, I also knew I had to explore my restrictive behaviors with food too. Restricting and bingeing are two-sides of the same coin. When you engage in one of them, the other is surely to follow. It’s two ends of a spectrum.
Restricting also meant I was punishing myself. There was a belief that I didn’t deserve to eat and nourish myself because of XYZ.
So I ate when I felt hungry. Or if I binged the day before, instead of not eating the next day, I would create intention to eat more balanced versus not eating at all. I stopped weighing myself on the scale and haven’t weighed myself in almost THREE years. Whereas before, I was weighing myself several times a day.
Which is huge. I was SO terrified to give up weighing myself. It had become some a ritual and habit. It forced me to learn to trust myself. I couldn’t rely any longer on a number validating my worth. I had to discover and cultivate that worth within myself.
I knew I had to relearn how to love myself in a healthier way. A way that honors my body and nourishes me. A way that is balanced and not so black and white.
Another huge factor with my healing around food was finding acceptance around the fact that this is one of my core wounds and a deeply embedded self-soothing mechanism. Therefore, it wouldn’t just go away in a week, a month, or even a year.
It would take years of committing and re-committing to myself. Committing to loving myself and to having a healthy relationship with food and my emotions.
And I have to continue committing to this. I have to have dialogues with myself on what I truly need, what will best honor me in each moment, and what’s the difference between a treat and numbing. It takes quite a bit of conscious effort at first.
But soon it becomes second nature. And then the day comes when you realize “wow, I haven’t binged in 2 days/2 week/2 months”.
Healing my disordered eating has been one of the most empowering and challenging experiences. We have to be willing to give up a habit and behavior that once protected us. Which means being open to being vulnerable with ourselves.
With steady commitment to ourselves and to our healing we truly can outgrow this behavior.
If you feel that you’re ready to heal and change your relationship to food, check out my private retreat offering and contact me! I would love to support you on your healing journey to finding true nourishment and self-love.